When Wolfe Tone met Napoleon

It was in the wintery month of December 1797. Theobald Wolfe Tone, a force of nature in the revolutionary United Irishmen, was kicking his heels in Paris, hoping the French Government would once again mount an expedition to liberate Ireland. There had been one the year before but it had gone badly wrong at Bantry Bay when the French fleet had struggled through the December storms only to flounder on the Irish shore, losing men, warships and confidence in the process. Now, fresh from Holland, where he had been badgering Admiral Dewinter to send his fleet against the English, he was in Paris, spending his nights in drab rue Notre Dame des Champs and his days in the corridors of power, hoping for kind words but, above all, deeds.

Napoleon was in Paris too, and he was just as busy even if he slept in the much more elegant Rue Chantereine. He was back from conquering Italy and everyone wanted to know what he intended to do next. His support, granted or implied, might make all the difference to a revolution in search of a champion. Napoleon was certainly interested in any plan which might bring France’s last remaining enemy low, but it was around this time that he was starting to think that Britain might best be attacked in the east rather than from the cold, dark waters of the Atlantic. Still, he agreed to meet the key Irishmen in Paris, Edward Lewines, failed seminarian but now something of Ireland’s ambassador for the revolutionary cause, and Theobald Wolfe Tone, who had been on the staff of the recently deceased General Hoche, and hoped Napoleon would inherit his passion for the Irish cause. These two ushered in John Tennent, who had agreed to return to Ireland as envoy and spy. But Tennent would not reach Ireland. Nor would Napoleon. Nothing came of the short interviews between the Irish rebels and the French general but Tone carefully recorded them in his diary and they are presented here as historical curiosities. Napoleon would be in Egypt within the year, and Tone would be dead in an English jail.

21 December 1797

Desaix brought Lewines and me this morning and introduced us to Buonaparte at his house in the Rue Chantereine. He lives in the greatest simplicity; his house is small, but neat, and all the furniture and ornaments in the most classical taste. He is about five feet six inches high, slender and well made, but stoops considerably; he looks at least ten years older than he is owing to the great fatigue he went in his immortal campaign of Italy. His face is that of a profound thinker, but with no marks of that great enthusiasm and that unceasing activity by which he is so much distinguished; it is rather to my mind the countenance of a mathematician than of a general. He has a fine eye, and great firmness about his mouth; he speaks low and hollow. So much for his figure and manner. We had not much discourse with him and Lewines, to whom, as our ambassador, I gave the pas. We told him that Tennent was about to depart for Ireland and was ready to charge himself with his orders, if any he had to give. He desired us to bring him the same evening and so we took our leave. In the evening we returned with Tennent, and Lewines had a good deal of conversation with him, that is Lewines insensed him a good deal on Irish affairs, of which it appears he is a good deal uninformed; for example he seems convinced that our population is not more than two millions, which is nonsense. Buonaparte listened but said very little. When all this was finished he desired that Tennent might be put off his departure for a few days, and then, turning to me asked whether I was not an adjudant general, to which I replied that I had the honour to be attached to General Hoche in that capacity. He then asked me where I had learned to speak French, to which I replied that I had learned the little I knew since my arrival in France about 20 months ago. He then desired us to return that next evening but one at the same hour, and so we parted. As to my French, I am ignorant whether it was the purity or the barbarism of my diction that drew his attention, and as I shall never inquire it must remain as an historical doubt to be investigated by the learned of future ages.

23 December 1797

Called this evening on Buonaparte, by appointment, with Tennent and Lewines and saw him for about five minutes. Lewines gave him a copy of the memorial I delivered to the government in February 1796 (viz nearly two years since) and which fortunately had been well verified in all the material facts by everything which has taken place in Ireland since. He also gave him Taylor’s map, and showed him half a dozen of Hoche’s letters, which Buonaparte read over. He then desired us to return in two or three days with such documents relating to Ireland as we were possessed of, and in the meantime that Tennent should postpone his departure. We then left him. His manner is cold, and he speaks very little; it is not however so dry as that of Hoche, but seems rather to proceed from languor than anything else. He is perfectly civil to us, but from anything we have yet seen or heard from him it is impossible to augur anything good or bad. We have now seen the greatest man in Europe three times and I am astonished to think how little I have to record about him. I am sure I wrote ten times as much about my first interview with Charles Delacroix but then I was a greenhorn. I am now a little used to see great men, and great statesmen, and great generals, and that has in some degree broke down my admiration. Yet after all it is droll that I should have become acquainted with Buonaparte!

13 January 1798

Saw Buonaparte this evening with Lewines, who delivered him a whole sheaf of papers relative to Ireland, including my two memorials of 1795, great part of which stands good yet. After Lewines had had a good deal of discourse with him, I mentioned the affair of [Thomas] McKenna who desires, it seems, to be employed as secretary and interpreter. Buonaparte observed that he believed the world thought he had fifty secretaries, whereas he had but one. Of course, there was an end of that business; however, he bid me to see what the young man was fit for and let him know. I took this opportunity to mention the desire all the refugee United Irishmen now in Paris had to bear a part in the expedition and the utility they would be of in case of a landing in Ireland. He answered that undoubtedly they would be all employed and desired me to give him in, for that purpose, a list of their names. Finally, I spoke of myself, telling him that General Desaix had informed me I was carried on the tableau of the army of England. He said I was. I then observed that I did not pretend to be of the smallest use to him while we remained in France but that I hoped to be serviceable to him on the other side of the water; that I did not give myself to him at all for a military man, having neither the knowledge nor the experience that would justify me in charging myself with any function. ‘Mais vous êtes brave’, said he, interrupting me. I replied when the occasion presented itself it would appear. ‘Eh bien’ said he, ‘ca suffit’. We then took our leave.